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Belief is a funny thing. It’s a word that gets tossed around in a lot of discussions, debates, and outright arguments without ever being properly defined. Granted, the idea of belief is a slippery concept to begin with, especially since it is so easily personalized and adapted to fit almost any mindset. In onset of the holiday season, combined with my recent read of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and rewatching Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather, got me thinking about the nature of belief and its place in stories.
As someone who is trying to be a good skeptic and humanist, I’ve developed a weird, slightly uncomfortable relationship with stories about the importance of belief. I read and watch a lot of stories that emphasize how important it is to believe in something fantastic, even if there doesn’t seem to be a good reason or at least nothing solid. Thanks to films like Toy Story, I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt for not playing with my Barbies, dinosaurs, Hot Wheels cars, and My Little Ponies anymore, but I still won’t donate them. I feel like I’d be giving up on them, or that they would feel sad (never mind the fact that they’d probably prefer to be played with!) Dream a Little Dream by Piers Anthony and the film version of The Neverending Story feature worlds and characters whose very existence depends on being believed in by real people, especially children. If that belief fails, they don’t just die… they cease to exist. Being forgotten is worse than death. For someone with a highly active imagination, I think stories like this compounded a bunch of my weird neuroses (which thankfully got used to fuel writing rather than sending me to the loony bin. Although that could still happen…)
But then I wonder: is it really a good idea to be giving kids these kinds of stories? The ones where lives depend on belief? On faith? That seems like the opposite of logic and critical thinking, both of which we are in desperate need of as a species. It seems counter-intuitive, even cruel, to feed kids these stories during their formative years and then expect them to just dump those accumulated years of perception as soon as they become adults. Arguably this is part of growing up, but even that is tinged with distaste and fear (think Peter Pan and no longer being able to fly, even with pixie dust). Adults are portrayed as losing something precious, but not gaining something important in return or exchange. With Christmas nearly upon us, the old debate over the merits of encouraging or discouraging belief in Santa Claus rise up again to do battle. Is the story of Santa Claus an elaborate lie that should be discouraged? Is it an important piece of magic from childhood? How far should one go with this little game of make-believe? Is it dangerous or just harmless fun?
Terry Pratchett’s novel and TV movie Hogfather presents Discworld’s porcine version of Santa Claus and Christmas in the form of the Hogfather and Hogswatch. In the story, a bunch of kill-joy entities known as the Auditors are trying to rein in humanity’s inclination to imagine by destroying belief in the Hogfather. Death (the Anthropomorphic Personification) steps into the role of the Hogfather in an attempt to salvage that belief to thwart the Auditors and ensure that the sun rises. There is a great quote towards the end of the book, an exchange between Death and his granddaughter Susan:
“…You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little–”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO?
This really struck me. Because I understand what Death is saying here and it makes sense. After all, those “big lies” are human constructs to help us make sense of the world, not independent entities or objects in their own right. And yet at the same time, I was uncomfortable trying to translate that into the real world. Is it really a good idea ,or even necessary, to believe in Santa Claus or leprechauns or the Loch Ness Monster or ghosts and angels and demons in order for humans to believe in concepts like Justice, Mercy, and Duty? How could I justify promoting reason and logic while I supported stories that pushed for belief without evidence? Something didn’t seem to fit.
And then it hit me: the faith of the Discworld characters in the Hogfather isn’t the same as our belief in Santa Claus. Because in their world there is evidence that the Hogfather exists. Perhaps not everyone in Discworld believes there is a real Hogfather, but through the characters we follow in the story it is made very clear that the Hogfather does indeed exist… along with Death, dragons, wizards, and an entire menagerie of beings and creatures straight out of fairy tales. And it’s the same for the other stories. Within those worlds, there is indeed evidence (albeit usually through eyewitnesses and anecdote) that these things exist. Science would (theoretically) be able to prove their existence if applied by characters in that world to those phenomenon. Magic has rules.
But in the real world, there is no such compelling evidence. Science can, is, and has been applied and while there is always a chance for error, the probability of there actually being a Santa Claus or ghosts the way people think of them and how they are described in literature is so infinitesimally small as to be nonexistence for practical terms and day-to-day life. Belief in the Hogfather while in Discworld is more plausible because there is a much higher probability of meeting him. Belief in Santa Claus in Our Reality is far, far, far less plausible because the chances of meeting the actual real flies-around-the-entire-world-in-a-single-night-delivering-presents-down-chimneys and knows-who’s-naughty-and-nice kind of Santa are beyond minuscule. So those two kinds of belief really can’t be compared. They are not the same at all. They are operating under completely different rules of reality.
So once again we are back to the theme of differentiating fiction from reality. It’s hard considering how real good books feel and that we’re often exposed to these stories when we are still too young to fully separate fantasy from fact. (We can’t all be like Susan!) Perhaps this is an odd theme to keep harping on, but it feels… relevant. The more I learn about how unreliable human minds actually are, how transient memories are, how far our perceptions differ from facts, and how tenaciously we cling to belief in the face of everything… it just seems like this is a good time to remind ourselves about the terrible power stories have over us. They can be wonderful and inspiring and they live (in a way) within us. But like any other power, it must be respected and understood. Otherwise, we’ll probably end up destroying ourselves.
On that cheery note…